Ralph Nader’s first presidential campaign was against Bill Clinton in 1996. Democrats were still smarting from their incredible defeat in 1994, when they lost control of the Congress. There were two competing theories about what the “lesson” of that election was. Some saw it as a sign of the public’s increasing conservativism, a message that Democrats were too far left. Obviously the solution would be to move right. Others saw it as a sign that weren’t being tough enough on the important issues, causing the people who could gain the most from government — the poor, blacks, etc. — to become more cynical and not vote. Obviously the solution was to fight harder and reenergize these non-voters.

Move right or fight? Nowhere was this dispute more evident than at the President, Bill Clinton. In one ear, he had his old friend Labor Secretary Robert Reich. Using constant lobbying and other pressure tactics, Reich got Clinton to fight for some issues. Most notably, he got Clinton to support an increase in the minimum wage (then, as now, at a 20-year low) and to sign an executive order forbidding government contractors from permanently replacing striking workers.

At times it seemed like Clinton wanted to do the right thing, but he was torn by his desire to find common ground with his opponents. But it was not possible to find common ground with the radical conservatives who, led by Newt Gingrich, took over in 1994. To them, politics was war, and they’d fight for everything they could get. The more Clinton caved, the more they demanded. Robert Reich suggests Gingrich was even upset that Clinton caved so much, since it deprived him of a fight.

But in the other ear, he had conservative pollster Dick Morris. Morris, an arrogant and immoral jerk, cared only about reelection. He described his worldview to Reich: “Clinton has a solid forty percent of the people who will go to the polls. Another forty percent will never vote for him. That leaves the swing. Half of the swing, ten percent, lean toward him. The other ten percent lean toward Dole.” Morris urged Clinton to compromise with the Republicans whenever possible to get an issue off the table. Then Clinton could campaign on whatever liberal positions polled well with the swing.

For reasons that are unclear to me, Clinton went with Morris. The White House process of policy development and discussion was placed with a new one: Tell your ideas to Dick Morris. If they poll above sixty, he tells the President. As a result, Clinton campaigned on issues like the V-Chip and school uniforms, while signing Republican bills to slash government programs and destroy welfare.

And so it is into this world Nader entered. Clinton doesn’t listen to liberals (who else are they going to vote for?), he doesn’t listen to nonvoters (who knows if they’d ever vote?), he only listens to Dick Morris, who only listens to the swing. Nader tries to solve both these issues. By stealing liberal votes, he can force Clinton not to take his 40% for granted. By energizing non-voters, he adds to the pot of potential voters Clinton can woo.

In part because of Nader’s presentation, Democrats didn’t understand this. Are there differences between the Democrats and Republicans? Sure. But Nader was largely right — the Democrats were trying to be Republican Lite. And both parties had become dependent on corporate money. (This especially affected Democratic congressmen, who woul have great trouble getting reelected without business funds which they could not get without being pro-business.)

Instead of realizing that Nader voters were there to be wooed, they thought they were to be yelled at. Instead of making political concessions to these voters, they ran ad campaigns that yelled at them. (A vote for Nader is a vote for Bush!) They saw Nader as a spoiler, taking voters they previously had taken for granted. Instead of solving the reasons that caused them to leave, they tried new tactics to get them back.

And so, sadly, Nader largely failed. Much to his consternation, liberal groups ironically rolled over for Clinton’s conservativism much as Clinton had rolled over for Gingrich’s. They gave Clinton their support without demanding anything in return.

And in some sense, Morris succeeded. Although he personally had to be forced out because of a sex scandal (he let a prostitute whose toes he sucked listen in on his phone calls with Clinton), his associates stayed on and won Clinton reelection. But in a more real sense, he failed. Clinton had no mandate for a second term, politics moved further to the right, and the less-well-off people the Democrats were supposed to represent got shafted. The Democrats won the election, only by selling their soul.

And they didn’t get it back. Although Al Gore’s personal struggle may have been a little different (as we’ve seen since 2000, he’s quite the passionate liberal at heart), he ended up deciding to campaign in much the same way. So Nader ran again. Nader may have cost Gore the election, but he continues to maintain that it was Gore’s election to lose. And he’s right. Had Gore followed Nader or Reich’s recommendations, he would have likely beat the Republican from Haliburton. Had he gotten Clinton to carry out the recommendations in his second term, it would have been a rout. But instead the country moved even further to the right.

In 2004 it seemed like things might actually improve. Howard Dean, one of the only Democrats to actually stand up and fight, was ahead by a large margin and able to break fundraising records without taking from the corporate trough. Kerry ended up defeating him, but not without making “Bring It On” his campaign promise. But Kerry has broken this promise. Bush has come at him with an unprecedented amount of incorrect negative ads, and Kerry has hardly responded. Following in Clinton’s footsteps, his most ambititous plan to date is to raise the minimum wage. He has done little to encourage Democrats to fight (although, thankfully, others have). And so Nader ran again.

Nader keeps running because things have not fundamentally changed since 1996. The Democratic Party has still lost its soul and its way. And while he may not be very clear about it, it’s clear he will keep running until he forces them to get it back.

(Source: Robert Reich’s memoir Locked in the Cabinet.)

posted June 29, 2004 09:45 AM (Politics) (17 comments) #


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When can I keep an enemy combatant?
Why Ralph Runs
What is going on at the Supreme Court?
Four Myths About Politics
Fahrenheit 9/11 Transcript: The Saudi Flights
Stupid Criticisms of Fahrenheit 9/11
Fact Check


In this election, the left wing base is not in danger at all. Kerry does not have to waste time courting anyone moderately or far to the left, given that Bush and his policies are pushing these people to Kerry more effectively than Kerry could pull them via any other means. It’s far more effective for Kerry as an electoral strategy to aim for the center and center right to pull those who would normally be voters for Bush. Every person that would vote for Bush but that votes for Kerry instead represents a two vote difference in the final count.

Nader ran on the idea that there was little difference between Gore and Bush in 2000. Given the campaign rhetoric and the fight for the moderates and centrists, this is not surprising. However, given Gore’s rhetoric and statements over the past four years, this idea was clearly wrong. I’m happy to see that the former Nader voters recognize this, even if Sir Ralph does not. Anymore, it seems that the only people actually rooting for Nader in this election are the Republicans hoping for a spoiler.

posted by Chris at June 29, 2004 10:34 AM #

Al Gore did take a Robert Reich like tone that cost time the 2000 election. His populist message was foolish. Clinton was leaving the White House with a Reaganesqe 68% approval rating. Gore should have run as New Democrat Part II, rather than return to the bad old unelectable days of Carter, Mondale, and Dukakis.

Kerry is moving toward the center, and rightly so. That is were this election will be fought. The lefties are energized with their hatred of Bush. Why in the world would an election Campaign court the handful of Nader voters and alienate the vast majority of Americans? Those people are not rational thinkers anyway.

I don’t think Nader cost Gore the election. I think the election was Gore’s to lose, and lose it he did. Remember Tennessee and Arkansas.

I read Locked in the Cabinet. I know where Riech is coming from. He is a good man. He longs to see a New New Deal for America.

That clouds his judgment at times. Just before the bubble burst, I remember him arguing that the Fed should lower interest rates even further, to lower unemployment further, because the economy had changed. Such wishful thinking. Just as it is wishful to think that Americans are eager to elect a president campaigning on a big labor platform.

His criticisms of Clinton miss the fact that Clinton was under constant assault from the right. He didn’t really have much choice but to tread lightly. Bush had a Republican House and Senate at the start of his presidency, thus he was able to enact a bold Republican agenda. Clinton didn’t have same advantage. Compromise was necessary. That’s politics.

I think it would be horrible mistake for Kerry to take a page from Reich’s book.

posted by Alan Gutierrez at June 29, 2004 11:13 AM #

Chris: Yes, Gore, free of having to run for President again, has been an incredible politician. But is there any evidence that he would be this way if he had won in 2000? It doesn’t seem very likely.

Alan: Huh? Clinton also had a Democratic House and Senate at the start of his presidency.

Why did he lose it? Because when he was under constant assault from the right; he caved. The Republicans proposed a budget that balanced by cutting government loopholes. Clinton should have responded forcefully with a budget that balanced faster by cutting defense spending and closing corporate tax loopholes.

Just imagine: “Their budget will cut the key things we all depend upon. Highways. Police. Research into new medicines. Ours will balance the budget faster by forcing large corporations to pay their fair share.” The public would have been with him. Instead, he caved and caved and caved again.

posted by Aaron Swartz at June 29, 2004 11:57 AM #

Chris: Yes, Gore, free of having to run for President again, has been an incredible politician. But is there any evidence that he would be this way if he had won in 2000? It doesn’t seem very likely.

I (and this comes from someone rooting against Gore a touch more than he was rooting against Bush in 2000) don’t imagine that Gore would have done the following had he been elected president:

These are a couple of examples, but I doubt that anyone who predicted that Gore (or Kerry) was (is) Bush-Lite can reasonably stand by those statements post Enron, Iraq, deficit spending, and so forth.

posted by Chris at June 29, 2004 12:08 PM #

I want to be clear that I never thought and do not think Gore would have done those things (e.g. go to war) either.

My point is that the reason there was a difference between Gore and Bush in 2000 is not because Gore would be better than we thought but that Bush has been worse than we thought.

Gore has been a much better (more passionate and outspoken) politician since he lost the election, but I don’t think he’d be that way if he was or was running for President.

posted by Aaron Swartz at June 29, 2004 12:23 PM #

It sounds to me like that between the two electable candidates in 2000, Gore would have been a better fit for you, but you seem intent on trying to convince yourself that he wasn’t much better than Bush. Given that Bush has been so much worse for progressive candidates, I would expect that those remaining to worship at the altar of Nader would see that while Nader is four steps forward, Kerry one step forward, and Bush four steps back, Nader is clearly not a viable option and start pushing for the next best candidate (for them), Kerry.

Also, why Nader runs is now very suspect to me personally, given the recent “assistance” he has received collecting ballot signatures from the GOP. His only role in 2004 is that of a spoiler or vanity candidate. I personally don’t understand how he seems to be the only one to not see this. (The Green Party is even playing smart by dumping him and only campaigning in those states where they will not spoil the Bush v. Kerry election. Is the Green Party now GOP-lite?)

posted by Chris at June 29, 2004 12:35 PM #

I guess I should be a bit more clear on the last bit of my post. To me, it seems that the only reason Ralph runs is either:

  1. To keep his name in the news and try to stay relevent. (Ego)

  2. He really doesn’t like the Democratic Party. (Hatred / Disappointment)

Neither of these has anything to do with advancing progressive causes.

The clearly optimal path in this election for progressives is to elect John Kerry overwhelmingly. Progressives are exceedingly stupid if they vote for Nader in this election in hopes that he’ll get enough votes to appear on the radar of a Kerry administration that wins by a squeaker, instead of simply voting for Kerry and assuring his win and working from there.

posted by Chris at June 29, 2004 12:40 PM #

Let me try to be more clear. I like Gore. I think Gore was the better “electable” candidate in 2000. I think people in swing states should vote for Kerry in 2004. In large part, I agree with you.

And while you are right that “The clearly optimal path in this election for progressives is to elect John Kerry overwhelmingly”, progressives can do other things than vote. And I think it would be a smart move for them to withhold their endorsement and threaten to withhold their vote as a way of forcing Kerry to go to the left, for his own good. (Why going to the left is good for Kerry I will address tomorrow.)

posted by Aaron Swartz at June 29, 2004 01:06 PM #

Thanks for the responses. I’m eagerly awaiting the post tomorrow about why Kerry should go left.

posted by Chris at June 29, 2004 01:16 PM #

Yes, Clinton had a Democratic House and Senate at the start of his administration. I don’t think the Republican revolution was due to Clinton not being left enough, however. He didn’t get into office with a mandate, the right being split by spoiler Perot, and then he pushed to hard with health care reform. He lost the mid-terms because he was too left to begin with.

There is an argument for a New New Deal a la Robert Reich, but I don’t think that argument is being made by Nader, do you?

posted by Alan Gutierrez at June 29, 2004 01:44 PM #

Aaron, I think this is the best explanation of what Nader (thinks he) is trying to do that I’ve read to date. It should be required reading for both reflexive Naderites and reflexive Nader-haters.

I supported Nader’s run in 2000. As a liberal in a Red state (Texas), my Presidential vote is pretty much worthless, and since Nader was running as a Green, I felt the best think I could do with my vote was to try and help Nader get 5%, so the Greens would qualify for Federal matching funds. It didn’t work out, but I still think I made the right choice.

2004 is a different story. As you said, Bush has been far worse than even those of us who had him for Governor expected, especially after 9/11. Many of Nader’s 2000 supporters realize that Bush must go, and so we’re much less willing to support Nader this time around. Besides, Nader’s running as an independent, so even in the unlikely event he breaks 5% this time around, the Federal money will go to him, not the Greens.

I may still give Nader (or Cobb, the Green candidate) my vote if either gets on the Texas ballot this year, but only because I don’t live in a swing state. In any case, my money is going to Kerry.

Still, I have no delusions that Kerry will be the President we wanted (but didn’t get) from Clinton. Sure, he’s got a liberal Senate voting record, but what else would you expect? He’s from Massachusetts - his constituents expect him to be liberal.

He began moving to the right as soon as he started running for President. I hope he wins, but if he does, I expect he’ll be only slightly more liberal than Clinton.

posted by Mathwiz at June 29, 2004 03:57 PM #

I’ve got to say I doubt Nader’s motives myself, but that’s in part because I just don’t see the value in what he’s doing. As a presidential candidate, he’s never even broken 5 percent of the vote nationally, which is pathetic if his goal is to actually win something. Even as far as sending a message goes; likely many more people agree with his policies than actually voted for him, so what’s the value in having data showing an artificially low percentage of supporters? “Nearly 1 in 20 Americans agree with me!” never struck me as a particularly strong statement.

Basically, the only way Nader could accomplish anything was as a spoiler. 2000 was a huge success for him in that regard, because it got him massive coverage and all kinds of attention that didn’t happen in 1996 when Clinton won comfortably. I don’t think it’s too odd that the Democrats wouldn’t have been inclined to listen to Nader after he effectively sent George W. Bush into the White House; it made him look like a hypocrite or a scorched-earth egotist. Generally you get leverage with the people who you just helped WIN an election, not the ones you just helped lose.

Basically, Nader’s efforts are wasted, however well-intentioned or legitimate his complaints might be. The Green Party would be a lot better doing what it seems to be doing now—focusing on infrastructure and local elections that builds them into something more than a protest party while leaving national politics to the Democrats for the moment, to hold off the Republicans from taking the farm. Since they—and Nader—can’t hope to be competitive in national politics, all they can hope to do is grab headlines. I’m not the most objective viewer ever, but it doesn’t seem like that’s been working out too well.

posted by Erik Owomoyela at June 30, 2004 09:15 AM #

Nader remarks “I didn’t cost Al Gore the election. Al Gore won the election.”

And now for some figures: in Florida in 2000, 3,000,000 people were eligible to vote but didn’t register; 2,900,000 were registered but didn’t vote. Other than the theft itself, those figures have obvious relevance. And they’re shameful.

posted by Pete Kaiser at June 30, 2004 02:03 PM #

And even then, Jeffrey Toobin says that under every statewide recount scenario, Gore would have won.

posted by Aaron Swartz at June 30, 2004 02:12 PM #


posted by scott at July 1, 2004 02:04 PM #

And even then, Jeffrey Toobin says that under every statewide recount scenario, Gore would have won.

The problem, though, is that under the recount Gore wanted, Bush would have won. So without the Supreme Court stepping in, Bush wins. With the Supreme Court stepping in, Bush wins. I sense a pattern here. :-)

posted by pudge at July 6, 2004 11:42 AM #

Gore lost? What, were you all born after 2000?! Gore won and there was a Kleptican coup d’etat to keep him out of office. The Blathercrats are either complicit or too busy talking about trivia to notice, or care, that the 2000 election was stolen, just like the 2004 “election” will be.

The Republic is dead. Long live the King! King George will be you leader just as long as there is something left in your country for the Klepticans to steal.

Of course, the US was founded on theft and genocide, so what did you expect? Will you all go away now? We would like our country back.

posted by Sequoyah Tecumseh at July 8, 2004 08:03 PM #

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